BAGHDAD - Teenage boys were playing soccer on the grassy parkland along Abu Nawas Street on Friday. A few parents were strolling the street gesturing to their young children as they gazed out over the Tigris River.

Abu Nawas Street was once a famous haunt lined by gardens and popular fish restaurants. But as of six months ago, it was a garbage-strewn strip bisected by 12-foot concrete blast barriers, and the neighborhood was symbolized by the blast-shocked, empty Sheraton Hotel at one end.

Six months ago, when I was last in Baghdad, few cars ventured out on a Friday. I couldn't drive slowly along the street on a Friday, especially since the city was then under curfew during Friday prayer hours to thwart car bombers.

Things have changed in Baghdad. Gingerly, tentatively, people are coming back to the streets for pleasure, like cave dwellers suddenly seeking out the light. And Abu Nawas' parks and fish restaurants - spruced up with government grants - are open again.

Mind you, people's new sense of security is tenuous. In the nearby Karrada neighborhood, a bomb went off in a market last week, killing 14. Many of the low, white stone-block fish restaurants trimmed in blue, orange and green, which reopened only 40 days ago, are still pretty empty. In front of the soccer field, a blue police pickup truck sports a mounted machine gun pointed out at the street.

Blast barriers still divide part of Abu Nawas Street, but now they are painted over with large murals depicting scenes from the era of Hammurabi. And U.S. soldiers, along with private security guards, mainly Iraqi, man unusually efficient 24-hour checkpoints, looking into the trunks and under the hoods of cars to trip up anyone wanting to blow up a soccer field.

Driving farther on, I pass a traffic jam outside Zawra Park, where playgrounds have been refurbished and a small zoo restocked to replace animals that died in the war. A long queue of cars waits to get into the park, while guards must swipe mirrors on long poles underneath every car to check for hidden bombs.

This is today's Baghdad, where people all agree that security has improved greatly - and most worry whether the lull will last.

Yet the changes since my last trip are still stunning. Take Mansour, a well-to-do neighborhood with many extravagant single-family homes that was still a no-go zone months ago, permeated with al-Qaeda militants and crippled by explosions. This Friday, a famous ice-cream shop, long closed, was open, and women's clothing stores were full of customers. Most important, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is gone from Mansour.

I asked Abu Haidar, the manager of a taxi transport business in a small strip mall, why he thought things had improved. He cited two factors.

First, he said, "the culture of people has changed from three years ago." Back then, Sunnis and Shiites were thinking mainly of who would gain power, but now most people realize that sectarian war helps no one. "There were no winners, and we all are the losers."

Second, he gave major credit to the movement of Sunni tribal fighters - known as the Awakening - who cleansed Anbar province of AQI. The leaders of the Awakening have sent fighters to some areas of Baghdad, like Mansour, to help local Sunnis do the same. The U.S. military under Gen. David Petraeus has made it a key policy goal to support tribal forces and urban Sunnis who once backed AQI but turned against it when it started killing them. The demise of AQI, which targeted Shiites, has lessened revenge killings by Shiite militias.

But Abu Haidar grew emotional as he talked about his fears for the future. He said ethnic cleansing had turned Baghdad into wholly Sunni or wholly Shiite enclaves that held seeds for future violence. He worried about Iraqi refugees returning home from Jordan and Syria - some of them using his transport service - because they often arrive to find squatters occupying their homes, which could stoke violence.

Most of all, he worried about the lack of government leaders in Iraq who could capitalize on the new security gains. The new Sunni tribal fighters could become dangerous ethnic militias if the government does not give its members jobs, he said. But the central government was run by religious parties that were rife with corruption. "Our problem now is politics, and our biggest problem is the turbans," he said, a reference to leaders from Shiite and Sunni religious parties. "They destroy the country because they only think of their sect."

Abu Haidar's words haunted me as we returned to Abu Nawas Street and ordered our carp at the Al Faris fish restaurant. As Iraqis know and Gen. Petraeus states bluntly, today's security gains cannot be consolidated without parallel Iraqi political gains. Whether and how these latter gains will happen is the question that haunts Baghdad.

Ali, the manager, pulled the fish alive out of a pool and gutted it swiftly, stretching it in halves onto stakes set in front of a wood fire in an open sand pit. We ate the sweet, grilled fish - which is Iraq's national dish, called

masguf

- with our hands and with flat Iraqi bread, as we watched six tables full of customers doing the same.

As Ali squeezed more fresh lemon juice on the fish he told us: "People are beginning to feel more confidence. Security helps. But if the Americans leave now, al-Qaeda will come back."

Contact columnist Trudy Rubin at 215-854-5823 or trubin@phillynews.com.

Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/trudyrubin.